Release Date: December 4, 2007
The film adaption of the first in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy of children's novels, "Northern Lights" (published as "The Golden Compass" in the U.S.) is due out on DVD and Blu-ray this week. After seeing the The Golden Compass, perhaps for the first time, on home video, you may be drawn to investigate the game version. Elder gamers, be warned: Although the novels enjoy some popularity with adults, and the film, as expensively produced films often must, appeals possibly as much to adults as children, the PlayStation 3 game version of The Golden Compass is intended for Pullman's original audience for the novels. That is, this is a game for kids.
Further, the game is less a chapter-and-verse retelling of the film, or merely inspired by the movie, as it is a companion piece to the Hollywood production and, in some ways, to the novels, too. If you've not read at least "Northern Lights"/"The Golden Compass" or seen the film, or both, part of the game will likely lose you. There's also a religious subtext in Pullman's work that only came to widespread public attention when the anticipated blockbuster movie version of "Compass" was about to hit theaters in America. The believers and nonbelievers, as they are wont to do, went to war. (The one side felt the film adaptation too much downplayed Pullman's alleged promotion of secularism, and the other side accused the filmmakers of shilling for Pullman and his aforementioned so-called secular agenda.) In response, Pullman addressed this criticism, insisting there is no secularist agenda in "His Dark Materials," and that they are indeed just children's stories. In his books, Pullman isn't at all blatantly pitching for pure secularist society, as per the first half of his denial, but in declaring the books are just stories, he's not entirely forthright. They are clearly written in reply to another, decades older, series of "just stories" for children: C.S. Lewis's Narnia novels. Therefore, moderate knee-slappers in the game, like an investigation yielding, "This is an armoire, not to be confused with a wardrobe," may easily fly over the heads of anyone who saw the movie and even read the novel, but doesn't know anything about the underlying kerfuffle.
This should make clear the uphill battle The Golden Compass faces as a game. The title is not only a member of a gaming category regarded with much skepticism, that of the movie tie-in, but in the case of this particular tie-in, not only the film, but maybe the book begetting the film, and perhaps even knowledge of a long-standing, heated philosophical conflict hovering over that book, are prerequisites to understanding the game — for adults, anyway.
The Golden Compass was released more or less in this same form for various console platforms; it does not take particular advantage of the specific strong suits of the PS3, but it's not glitchy, choppy or bug-riddled, either. The chief advantage of its appearance on Sony's flagship console is a solid high-resolution presentation. The ice in the wilder parts of the game environments and some lighting effects in the urban locales look good; they may stem from seventh-generation wizardry, but it's hard to tell what's possible due to PS3 and what could have been squeezed out of previous-generation hardware. Where the current-gen oomph shines is in the audio presentation, which, for lack of an inferior word, is cinematic, and nicely suits a game directly associated with a movie.
Gameplay in The Golden Compass is straightforward action/adventure, gamers playing as characters from the film — notably young Lyra, and her new friend and protector, Iorek, prince of a race of sentient, battle-hardened polar bears — as they try to rescue Lyra's best friend, Roger. There's the business about Gobblers, and Lyra's seeking information from aeronauts and associates of the governmental authority, the Magisterium, and learning how to use the alethiometer, and ... well, you can see, without the book and film for handy reference, there's some confusing mess we have on our hands. Little of these details, seemingly obscure but indeed essential, are specifically explained in the game, relying on the supposed introduction to the game universe through other media.
As suits the characters' traits, Iorek does the fighting — exactly as you'd expect of an armored, toothy polar bear — and Lyra is a little girl, not much of a stone combatant; she handles the requisite investigative portions of the game, and, when pressed, in a passive-aggressive fashion performs evasion maneuvers to defeat enemies.
The greatest emphasis is telling The Golden Compass, or a version for the previously indoctrinated, in the form of a video game. The most notable, praiseworthy gameplay mechanic in the title is the inclusion of what are essentially minigames within the confines of what would otherwise be non-interactive cut scenes. The games are very simple, at times perhaps a bit too difficult for the intended audience, and even compulsory, but they attempt resolution of what is probably the greatest complaint, especially for teens and adults, about many adventure games: all the sitting still, cradling a useless controller, while the characters pedantically relate necessary but often humdrum information. For younger children, the interstitial minigames are more or less moot, neither here nor there, as young children indeed like having stories told them.
Game control in the title is fine, although a few of the "balance beam" routines can be a bit frustrating. Again, more for adults than children. As an adult, I tried to rush them to get on past, often falling off a ledge, a pole, what have you; but my daughter took her time and seldom wavered, let alone allowed Lyra to lose her balance. Besides a very, very simplistic fighting mechanism for Iorek consisting mostly of swipe, block, a power attack available at certain points, and "combos" — combos that are barely so, as they consist of no more than two face buttons in sequence, or a button tapped followed by two buttons depressed at the same time — the presiding control paradigm is the we-show-you-the-button-on-screen-you-press-it-in-time variety. But it suits the intended audience, it works, and I have no complaints here.
Like most movie tie-in games, The Golden Compass complies with policy and includes some unlockable extras: per usual, still art, movie clips and video featurettes based upon the film, plus a couple of cheat codes. There's not much here for adult gamers, but children will enjoy the movie clips and such.
The Golden Compass is tantamount to impossible to score playing as an adult, and since I can't faithfully assume the role of a child ... I can travel back in time, you know, but there were no PS3s when I was a kid, so it's a fruitless mission here. In the event, in the interest of equity, I chose to play through the game with my three children. They all liked the game, each in a way befitting their ages and exposure to the Pullman's original material. The two-year-old boy, who hadn't seen the movie, wouldn't remember if he had, and can't read the book, loved watching Iorek the polar bear run around on the big TV. My four-year-old son, who's neither read the book nor seen the film, enjoyed both the game action and the storytelling components. And our 13-year-old girl, who's read the book and seen the movie, enjoyed the game in a stunning display of pleasant familial socializing devoid of snarky remarks (though short-lived, as you'd expect); she even went back and played through a lot of The Golden Compass by herself.
For adults, this title falls far short of the bar for a good game. The thing is, however, it is not a game for adults. This title is for children who would or have enjoyed Pullman's novels, and likewise the movie adapted from the first book of the trilogy. Based upon this reasonable criteria, The Golden Compass is a good game and deserves a score commensurate with that determination — the largest demerit here is that the game has only niche appeal, even for some kids without a taste for "His Dark Materials." I've warned away adults and older teens intending to play by themselves, and that should suffice as due diligence. I will further say, with the movie available this week on home video, and the novels available in paperbound editions, you can for the cost of the now-reduced price of the game, buy the movie and the first book in the series. The only point of the game is for your children, and the far better experience would be to read the book to or with them, and then watch the movie adaptation together. After this introduction, if they've profoundly fallen for Pullman's children's fantasy epic — don't be surprised when they do, either — pick up the remaining novels. And by all means, buy this game for the kids.
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